Yearned-for change is on its way - but when will we see its effects on an intrinsically short-term setup? Nathan Hill explores our current predicament.
They say the table starts to take shape after 10 games and you can begin to judge who’ll be fighting which battles. Well, after 11, Norwich are about where most of us thought they would be, in terms of league position at least. But that doesn’t even begin to sum up a wildly polarising starting sequence which has raised even more questions as to what type of team we’re trying to be and in what overall direction we’re heading. Again, it feels as if Norwich’s biggest battle is with themselves as they still try to forge a long-lasting identity.
None of the Championship mileage in the tank has helped us better negotiate these awkward away trips against enthusiastic and energetic outfits
With a sporting director serving his notice period and historic changes ongoing at boardroom level, this was always likely to be a difficult campaign to navigate. The main characteristics we should be associating with the team on the pitch is that they’re now more streetwise and durable. These are the main qualities Stuart Webber sought to add in the summer window, having put the late-season implosions down to the youthfulness of a side then missing its more senior, steadying presences. Finding EFL veterans who could cope with the rigours of the second tier became almost the entire focus of the offseason.
However, none of this added experience has saved us from another embarrassment at Plymouth. And, in general, none of the Championship mileage in the tank has helped us better negotiate these awkward away trips against enthusiastic and energetic outfits. Talent-wise, none of the three sides to have so far humbled us away stack up to what is even now a much more vanilla Norwich roster. But in typically romantic Championship fashion, they’re regularly now the flies in our soup.
It’s not the Birminghams, the Hulls, or the Stokes. All of these have been home wins, as they all were last season too. Norwich will continue to have no real issue in dealing with these assignments, but there will continue to be days (mostly on the road) where we look like the average also-rans being outfought and outthought. Plymouth, Rotherham and Swansea are young and exuberant sides with a clear way of playing which nullifies us perfectly. Be a nuisance, press high, block passing routes into the middle third and counter quickly.
The same unintelligent play we’ve been seeing for many years, spanning many head coaches, is still rearing its head
Meanwhile, in possession, our methodology of moving the ball from back to front is less clear, after making promising progress towards a recognisable brand in the opening month. That or the execution has regressed dramatically since. The same unintelligent play we’ve been seeing for many years, spanning many head coaches, is still rearing its head. Whether it be Farkeball, Smudgerball (if his non-descript style even merits the suffix) or Wagnerball, there’s an insistence on playing with fire by rolling the ball into midfield to a retreating teammate facing his own goal, with opposition players breathing down his neck. It’s a particularly brainless idea to do this three minutes into the next away game off the back of shipping six down in Devon.
It’s not a unique problem to Norwich – everyone up and down the pyramid has become obsessed with trying to emulate Pep Guardiola without considering the fact that they don’t have Rodri, Bernardo Silva and Kevin De Bruyne to emulate it with. And it’s been a feature of Norwich City football for years now too. You’d hope, however, these savvy pros, who’ve negotiated more of your cliched Wednesday nights in Swansea than you’ve had hot dinners, would have the common sense to not risk catastrophes like this so early on. We should all expect better game management from this team and smarter, more situationally aware football. Intriguing, then, to hear 20-year-old Jonny Rowe, in his first season starting every week, call this out in his post-match interview at Coventry. A game in which Norwich did little to disrupt growing pressure until a home equaliser became an inevitability.
Carrow Road has been a much more enjoyable place to be
When you assemble proven commodities to put the best, ready-made product on the field, you create very immediate expectations of ready-made results. To be fair, at home, we’ve been getting them so far. Carrow Road has been a much more enjoyable place to be – granted, the bar was exceptionally low. Four wins out of five so far and positive, attacking performances for the most part – we’d have taken that. The noise levels have cranked up a couple of decibels in response, although that could just be me adjusting to my newer surroundings of the Upper Barclay.
Particularly in the opening month, you could also see green shoots of a style of play emerge and punters were buying in. Ashley Barnes and Josh Sargent, before their respective injuries, were linking up very nicely indeed. Crosses were being sent into the box at the earliest opportunity to play to their obvious aerial strengths. Wingers were winging, none more so than Rowe. God bless Jonny Rowe. Watching him explode onto the scene has been a joy.
But once obstacles appear, such as the injuries to both of the aforementioned strikers, and early momentum fizzles out, patience wears thinner quicker. The dropoff in September and October has been sharp. Lack of depth was cited as one of the potential issues holding this squad back from sustaining a serious playoff push before a ball was kicked – and it’s beginning to play out that way. It’s no wonder that Norwich look a completely different side when two strikers usually start and both are missing – much like how Farke’s Norwich looked very different without Emi Buendía.
It does feel as if Adam Idah has been given similar instructions to Barnes and Sargent and is just expected to figure it out
David Wagner can, however, certainly adapt better to having a very different striker leading the line. It does feel as if Adam Idah has been given similar instructions to Barnes and Sargent and is just expected to figure it out. Many have also started to criticise his substitutions for negatively impacting games. The quantity and timing of his changes are no doubt contributing to a loss of rhythm, but surely the bigger problem is that his choice alternatives to which he has to turn are often a significant downgrade to who’s being withdrawn.
It’s very difficult to achieve consistent results and also maintain a constant style when any given starting lineup and bench looks so muddled – a few of the rotation options still here were unfancied by one or both of the previous two head coaches. With that being said, choosing this past weekend to dip Dimi Giannoulis out after one of his best performances in yellow (at home to Birmingham) was pretty bizarre.
Wagner doesn’t have the luxury of time to find the right formula either, we now know who Webber’s replacement is. You strongly suspect Ben Knapper will want to line up his own manager to match his vision of how Norwich City will play football in the years to come, much like how Webber originally built the (now discontinued) Farkeball brand. That process will only accelerate if the August form isn’t quickly rediscovered. Even before we all knew that Webber had started the countdown clock on his time at the football club, Wagner felt like a short-term appointment. The rolling contract reflects that. Now he feels very much like a lame duck.
It all feels like a half-transition or a half-commitment towards trying something different – which might well be binned off soon anyway.
Knowing that Knapper, when he eventually assumes full control, will be able to press the nuclear button, it’s unsurprising that the entire mission of the transfer window was about applying what American sports analysts would refer to as ‘band-aids’ to the holes in our squad, rather than look for long-term cures. However, all this does is put the whole thing in a holding pattern where very few elements of what we’re following feel as if it’s worth getting too excited, or down, about.
It all feels like a half-transition or a half-commitment towards trying something different – which might well be binned off soon anyway. For now, let’s enjoy Gabriel Sara’s obvious brilliance and Rowe’s fearless, happy-go-lucky performances, and hope for a better and more cohesive direction in the not-so distant future.
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Tom & Jon reflect on a split between fans that see things to be positive about and those ready to turn the page on David Wagner. There’s a new sporting director, but same old inconsistent Nodge.